You’re starting when? But the desert will be too hot by then! You’ll die out there! You’re not skipping the Sierras? Haven’t you heard about all the snow? The rivers are raging! You’ll die out there!
It hasn’t been an easy year for the class of 2017 PCT thru-hikers. Most of us started paying close attention to the weather in California months before our hikes began, watching as the snow in the mountains fell. And fell. And fell and fell. We saw the pictures of snowed-in Mammoth, heard ski resorts were predicting the season would extend through July, knowing the PCT came within miles of these areas. So we tried reasoning with ourselves: Um, sooo this means a lot of water in the desert…right?
Start too late, the desert heat will melt your soul. But start too early and the Sierras will swallow you whole. Either way, you better make it through Washington before it starts snowing in the Cascades.
People on and off the internet were ablaze with “information” on how to handle a 2017 thru-hike: when to start, how to beat the desert heat, whether or not to skip the Sierras, crampons or microspikes, which creeks were passable, which creeks would sweep you away if you so much as looked at them. Early thru-hikers posted accounts of their experiences in the Sierras, how river crossings ended their hikes and nearly their lives. We listened to a hiker, providing trail magic in Agua Dulce when the Sierras proved too much for him, tell us how they were impassable and anyone attempting this year is crazy and would basically die.
When you’re sweating on mile 454 of the desert, the snowy Sierras 300 miles away seem impossibly far, a chapter in another book. As we hiked along, we continued to hear about people skipping north to Oregon or Northern California, leaving the Sierras early, or quitting all together, not paying too much attention, yet still hoping for at least one success story. Which, is sort of funny, because just as one person failing doesn’t mean everyone will fail, one person succeeding doesn’t mean everyone will succeed. But it does mean it’s possible.
There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the snow or the rivers, so we did the only thing we could do: take on the trail in front of us, one day at a time. We aimed for a respectable date to enter the Sierras, June 21, six days after the supposed recommended date to enter the Sierras on a normal snow year, and kept walking north.
There were basically three groups of people we heard from before we hit the silence of the Sierras: people whose job it is to care, like family, friends, organizations concerned for your safety; people who simply parrot information they’ve heard, trying to be helpful; and people who tried and failed, and because they couldn’t do it, you probably shouldn’t even try.
With all due respect internet, people of the internet, random strangers at Agua Dulce, you don’t know the stuff I’m made of. You don’t know my skill set, my secret powers, my capabilities, my breaking points, how willing I am to be outside my comfort zone, what my zone of comfort even is. How can you assume, based solely on your own personal experiences, or worse, things you’ve read on the internet, that I’ll fail when I haven’t even been given the chance to succeed? And seriously, if the first time I am hearing about all this snow in the Sierras is from a comment on one of my Instagram posts, we have a whole ‘nother issue.
If I lived my life according to other people’s limits, how would I ever test my own? How can I discover where my own boundaries lay, if I never try to reach them? If you picture your life boundaries and comfort zones as a circle around your body, mine has a bunch of hand indentations pressing around the perimeter from where I’ve pushed myself. It’s even got a few holes where I’ve successfully punched through those comfort zones, making room for a whole new bubble of boundaries and limits.
Besides, fears are almost always more terrifying than reality. Yes, the Sierras were an awesomely difficult challenge. I look back at some of the things I did, things even I might not believe if I hadn’t been there, standing on top of that pass, or on the other side of that river. I remember on some of the scarier passes (icy, steep, slushy, etc.), assessing the situation, taking a deep breath and moving forward, one small calculated step at a time, taking care not to look down the steep slope on my right, or the steep slope I could reach out and touch on my left, just straight ahead at the footsteps cut into the snow ledge. Plunge ice axe, step. Repeat until complete. Then look back at your accomplishment. We spent hours hiking through snowfields and over sun cups where a wrong step or the slip of a foot could ruin your day or end your hike.
And the rivers were no joke, especially when you’re 5’4″, rocking a 125 pound trail weight. On one river crossing, Snap and I watched G wade up to his chest in water, which meant over our heads, and opted to find a safer crossing. We hiked almost three miles upstream where the river just got wider and deeper before we found an even close to manageable way, which basically involved Snap tossing me to G like a rag doll. On another crossing, the current proved a bit too much for my frame and before I even realized what was happening, G had my runaway trekking poll in one hand and was holding me up by my backpack with the other. I have no idea how he remained standing, or how he managed to pull me across. On still another, I crossed a calm but very deep stream and started to float when the water reached my backpack, involuntarily removing my feet from the bottom. As I casually began drifting downstream, I just started awkwardly swimming toward the other side where another hiker helped pull me out. And don’t get me started on the sketchy logs. Some of those were scarier than the actual water.
On our final pass in the Sierras, a hiker behind us lost control and unintentionally began his glissade. I watched in horror as he headed straight for a rock patch, bounced off, seemingly head first. I heard him hit. I thought for sure he was unconscious, or much, much worse. Remarkably, he walked away with a scratched leg.
So yeah, shit got real out there. But in talking with other hikers, you quickly realize everyone’s experience was different. A typical conversation in the Sierras:
How in the world did you get across Tyndall?
Oh that, we found a log a bit downstream. But how did you get across Mono?
Oh, there was a log a bit upstream.
We talked with a group who said they never crossed a river with water above their knees (Actually, I believe what they said was, “The water never went balls deep,” which is apparently important if you’re a dude.) Point is, our individual choices combined with our individual abilities determined our individual experiences.
The PCT is full of all kinds of people. People with lots of experience in outdoor situations, people with little to no experience, and all the people in between. I met a man who waited two hours for another person to show up because he couldn’t find his way out of the campsite. So when organizations like the PCTA put out warnings about conditions, they are talking to all of these people. And those individuals must decide for themselves how capable they are to tackle the challenges in front of them. Because the PCTA, like most people, has no idea what your skill level is and what you’re capable of…only you know that.
So even if I personally thought it was crazy (for my taste) to enter the Sierras in May or even early June, especially as a solo hiker, I would never tell anyone else not to do so, because I have no idea who you are or what you can do. California has been in a drought for the past five years or more (don’t quote me on that) so maybe we hikers forgot something basic: high mountains are supposed to have snow. If you attempted to enter the Sierras in May in a record snow year, you probably shouldn’t have been surprised at all the snow and subsequent snow melt (i.e. rivers), and hopefully had the skills and confidence to tackle them. Still, shit happens, that I know.
Our days in the Sierras were hard work and slow going, but definitely doable. And yeah, I’ll probably still pee my pants a little every time I hear a rushing river, intimidated by the thought of finding a safe place to cross, but overall, I’m so happy we ignored the fear mongering and naysayers and hiked through, testing our own limits, creating new boundaries. I’m especially grateful for my hiking partners, G and Snap, for ensuring I came out alive on the other end. (I’m no idiot, I trapped some good ones early.) We were able to see the Sierras in a light perhaps not many do.
If you skipped this year, I totally respect that, but I hope you did so based on your own limits and boundaries, not those of someone else. Don’t let anyone put you in a box. Draw your own. Then punch some holes in it, of course.
I can’t remember when I started pretending Mother Nature and I were BFFs, but I truly started believing it on the Appalachian Trail. The moment we stepped out of my friend Erin’s car to hike the first 400 strenuous steps of the Approach Trail, the sky opened her spout and the rain came pouring out. I pulled out my very ridiculous (but incredibly useful) looking bright blue tarp poncho/pack cover, and reminded myself that this is what I signed up for, the AT is notoriously wet, I should probably get used to it.
Around mile four of sloshing around in my shoes with a 30 pound pack on my back, convincing myself I was having a great time, I started pleading with her.
Listen, Mother Nature, you know me. I love a good storm. I don’t even mind hiking in the rain. I like it actually. It makes me move a little faster, provides motivation.The only thing that really sucks is setting up and taking down in the rain. If we can work around those two times, you and I will have a beautiful friendship.
We had delightful weather for the next four and a half months.
After days of mild desert hiking my first week on the PCT, blown away by the beauty of the morning, I mentioned our weather luck to a fellow hiker from Holland. He looked at me like I was nuts. Clearly he had a different idea of “beautiful weather.”
We laughed at our disagreement, and then he asked, “Have you ever thought, maybe it’s your attitude that makes the weather so nice?”
I wandered up the trail trying to recall if the weather on the AT was really as good as I remembered. I mean, sure, we had some cold mornings, freezing nights, hot afternoons, days so humid that breathing felt like drowning. And yeah, it rained on us, soaking us to the bone, to the point you start trudging through the shin deep puddles and mud because you already have trench foot, what’s one more puddle? And the storms rolled in, and the storms rolled out.
But I guess I remember these things happening at the most convenient of times. Like while walking our last few miles into town. Or on our zero days. Or right after we packed up camp. I remember literally run-hiking nine miles in two hours through Shenandoah to try to beat the storm the ranger warned us about, you better just stay here, she said, you’ll never make it to the next campground, but it was only noon and we weren’t done yet. Plus, what a fun challenge! We hiked our asses off, zipped up our tent with the clap of the first giant thunder, and shared a high-five, panting like puppies on a hot summer day. Then we celebrated with wine, cribbage and blackberry pie at the lodge (yes, of course this was our real motivation).
On the days that really mattered though, boy did Mother Nature do us a solid. Right before we entered the Great Smoky Mountains, we stayed with a local who told us there were five incredible views the Smokies were known for, but we would never see all five because the damn weather never holds for anyone’s entire 72 mile trip through it. We had five, beautiful, clear days of magic. We summited Mount Washington, known for the worst weather in the world, on a sunny summer day. Katahdin was a dream, the Whites were perfection. And hey, I can count the times I had to pack a wet tent on my left hand. Maybe Mother Nature was listening after all.
Looking back, the inclement weather added to my experiences, I didn’t let it take away from them. So maybe my fellow hiker had a point. I’ve walked nearly 600 miles of Southern California, and I’m still waiting for the dreadful desert of my imagination to appear, an image born from the words of others and countless warnings of heat and misery. And so far…it’s been lovely; the views outstanding, the heat quite bearable. Only now I can’t be sure if that’s real, or just my reality. Perhaps part Mother Nature, part me?
I guess it doesn’t matter. I once heard the difference between an obstacle and adventure is attitude, and I prefer to fill my life with one of those things.
(Pssst, Mother Nature, if you are listening, I know you’re aware of the situation you’ve created in the Sierras. I’ll be there in about a week, just a heads up.)
Somewhere deep in the wilderness of Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, I had to go. Emily and I were taking a lunch break right before a steep, rocky five-mile descent, and this was pretty much my last chance. I scurried a bit further into the woods and stepped over a giant log, my foot landing on a large black duffle bag, creating a sort of clinking glass sound.
Well that’s weird. Next to the duffle was another tote, full of pots and pans and other odds and ends. Why in the world would something like that be way out here? But when I have to go, I have to go. With little time to spare, I called Emily to come investigate. When you’ve walked over a thousand miles on the same trail, random duffle bags in the wilderness are like gossip magazines in a long line at the grocery store, all of a sudden extremely interesting.
As I turned my back to the next giant fallen tree and popped a squat, we pondered aloud what could be inside. Emily was a few feet from the bags when I saw her eyes get bigger than any eyes I have ever seen before, and will ever see again. She pointed at what I could only assume was behind me, because why would she point at me? She knew what I was doing.
So, in my very compromised position, I turned my head around to see what all the fuss was about.
A shaggy, blonde, bespectacled head had popped up from behind the log, the very same log my ass was pointed at, about to, well, you know.
I like to think I reacted the way any human would if they walked into a private bathroom stall, shut the door, sat on the toilet, and heard a “Psst” in their ear just as they were about to go.
“I’M POOPING!!!!” I shouted, with all the emotions.
“Oh, sorry,” the head replied, laying back down behind the log from which it came.
“Well, not anymore,” I needlessly commented as I hurried to pull up my skirt, grab my pack and catch up with Emily who had already run down the trail in tears.
The moral of that story is: you’re never alone on a long distance wilderness trail. Even when you’re 100% sure you are, even if you haven’t seen another person in eight hours, especially when you see “abandoned” duffle bags in the forest. Feeling lonely on the PCT? Just try to take a pee in the open desert, or on one of those never ending exposed cliff edges, someone is guaranteed to come around the corner and catch you midstream.
A few weeks after summiting Katahdin, when only the good memories remained and the hard times no longer seemed that hard, I started ingesting all the information I could find on the internet about the PCT. I wanted to know everything. Was it similar to the AT? What was different? How? Why? Again and again I read that aside from both being long distance hiking trails, basically everything was different. I was annoyed, unsatisfied. That answer didn’t help quench my thirst for information at all. But after 19 days and 370 miles, I get it. It’s like trying to compare my bicycle to my car. They’re both modes of transportation, but there’s really no point in laying out their similarities beyond that.
For me, the biggest difference so far has been embarking on this adventure without my dear friend and hiking partner. I feel Emily’s absence on the trail every day. Like when I struggle to reattach my pee rag to my pack (you learn to do everything with a pack on your back) and she’s not there to help me. Yeah, I know, she’s a really good hiking partner. Or when I stretch my arms on the trail and no one behind me tells me to put them down (though I’m sure they are thinking it), that I smell like an onion. Or when I get to the top of a hard climb and wait for nothing in particular, until I realize I am waiting for someone who is never coming. When I point at a plant (like, all the plants) and wonder aloud what it is, no one makes an educated (or more often, accurate) guess, and then tells me all about how it can be used in the wilderness. When I make odd comments in my awful British accent and no one responds in a slightly less awful British accent. When I stroll into town and try to convince whoever I’m with that town days are about drinking wine in bed and watching the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones in fancy B&Bs. When I take a photo and have no hiker model to give it meaning. When the sun is still up as I roll into camp and I get excited about cribbage time, and realize my cribbage partner is across the country.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy hiking solo, it’s just a total different experience. I love hiking by myself, being alone with my thoughts, moving at my own pace, having just myself to let down. But part of me also feels a bit guilty. I’m fully aware I wouldn’t be taking these steps if it weren’t for Emily. A few years ago when she asked me to hike the AT, her true desire was really the PCT, but a friend suggested if she wanted to hike both (or go for that elusive Triple Crown), start with the AT. You’ll see why (I totally see why). And now I’m here and she’s not. I’m living out one of her dreams, and she can’t (yet). And that sucks.
But the thing about Emily, she would hate that I feel guilty. So I have to passive aggressively write about feeling guilty. The kind of hiking partner who is willing to handle another woman’s pee rag is definitely one who wants that other woman to crush it, pretty much always, no matter what the situation.
No, I am not alone out here, yet I feel a unique loneliness all the same. I didn’t start writing this as a love letter to the best adventure buddy out there, but it definitely turned into one.
Miss ya, Em.
Six weeks ago, from a sailboat in the middle of the Bahamas, the Purple Squirrel sent an email to The Other Fork in the Road, crossing oceans and continents before reaching me in the Arctic Circle, and now I live in his van. Sometimes you just gotta reach out and grab the random bits of confetti life throws in your direction.
When I first opened the email-read-round-the-world, I was easing into my four hour early morning layover in Frankfurt en route to Finland. I had quite literally nothing to do but stalk my new pen pal, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The very first piece of information the internet coughed up was that he may or may not live in a van.
(!!!) I repeat (!!!)
I immediately closed my laptop and skeptically side-eyed everyone within side-eyeing distance, as if someone was playing a dirty trick on me. I don’t know when exactly I started dreaming of life on the road, but purchasing my rooftop tent was no accident. I had big plans for my Tonka truck. I drew detailed pictures in my head of how I would arrange my belongings inside the FJ to best accommodate my bike, snowboard and outdoor gear. How I would organize and reduce my world to whatever could fit atop of four wheels. How I would shit, shower and shave at Flying J’s, Pilots, gas stations across the country, living on simple meals and water, things that could survive in a cooler.
And here was this guy, already out there living his version of a similar dream, reaching out with a simple but effective email (Subject: Forking Awesome) summed up, “Hi. I’m, preeeetty sure we should be friends.” The more research (stalking) I did, the more dots connected and the more convinced I became my new pen pal did indeed live in a van, and that’s how I came to be sitting outside in Kanab, Utah at a high school track, writing this post while the Purple Squirrel (aka Van Man) runs calculated laps, exercising more than any human should, in preparation for an Ironman. I’m perfectly content to be the one sitting in the bleachers, my chosen form of bodily punishment quickly approaching.
When the Van Man offered to road trip me from Denver to Campo, the southern terminus of the PCT, it was quite literally impossible for me to turn him down. I mean, seriously, an opportunity to live in a van for three weeks whilst road tripping to the next big adventure in my life with a perfect stranger? The trifecta of obvious yes’s. The fact Van Man magically morphed into a Purple Squirrel was an unexpected bonus, like winning both showcases on The Price Is Right, because if I’m being honest, what intrigued me most was meeting the well-built van that grew from his creative mind and capable hands.
Her name is Little E, and she is beautiful.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail prepared me for many things in my future I couldn’t have possibly known back then, one of them being van life. Living out of a backpack for five months makes van life seem almost luxurious, especially if you live in a van like Little E. She’s got it all. A roomy fridge that can easily store delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, bacon and eggs, all the cheese and meats you can possibly imagine. And beer. All the beer. You’re still technically packing it in and out, just not on your back. Cuisine possibilities are endless, except if you need an oven. Then the cuisine possibilities end.
She’s got hot water, a kitchen sink, an outdoor and indoor shower that all but disappears when not in use. She’s got a cozy warm bed, lighting for every mood, surround sound, heat, swivel chair seating, ample storage, outlets, USB and solar power to keep your life supercharged. Only *slightly* better than trail life, which has pretty much none of those things.
And we should talk about the toilet. A speckled white, odorless, tucked away piece of beautifully functional plastic that rolls out to store my #1s, and rolls in while composting my #2s. It is easily my favorite thing inside this van at all times. I gaze lovingly as it rolls from its storage cubby, often resisting the urge to hug its oblong body, usually just settling for a meaningful pat, softly whispering, “I’m so glad you’re here,” before sending it back into hiding. Seriously, if you’re going to live in a van, don’t forget the toilet. Your it’s an emergency! shits, early morning pees, it’s too cold/raining/snowing outside bathroom needs will thank you.
There are challenges, sure. Reduced space and limited cooktops change the way you think about meal prep. Van Man’s been living in the van since October 2016, so he’s had some time to perfect his routine, but I’ve cooked like two meals in three weeks, and I’m pretty sure he’s a wizard.
Yeah, it’s sort of weird doing your business directly behind the chef preparing breakfast in the kitchen, but trust me, you get over that real quick. Just turn up the music and pretend you’re drinking your coffee, reading the morning paper like everyone else on a Sunday morning. Only with a much better view.
When your entire home is contained in a 144 WB Sprinter Van, with roughly 70 square feet of livable space, your body eventually adjusts, learns to dance around the corners that bashed your knee the first 226 times, around the other human body also occupying that space, up and over the natural curves of your new home. You quickly find your place, your spot, the one that makes you smile as you observe the entirety of your existence and sigh when you realize absolutely nothing is missing. (Except a van cat. I hope you’re ready for retirement, Elsa.)
But there’s more. You don’t shower every day (bonus!) and you get to wear your favorite outfit like, all of the time. You can drive for hours or stay for days. You can climb onto the roof with sleeping bags to watch the sunset or stargaze and unsuccessfully point out the North Star and all the constellations you thought you knew, but really, really don’t. You can set up camp chairs in the middle of the desert at dusk, scanning the endless terrain with binoculars, searching for coyotes disguised as jackrabbits. You can turn up the heat and listen to the pitter of rain patter turn to snow, watching as it softly blankets the forest ground next to the Grand Canyon in May. You can park on a cliff ledge outside of Moab and watch the light change the landscape, a new view every few minutes. You can be anywhere, go everywhere.
In five days, I start physically walking toward Canada. But mentally, I’m headed straight for Little E.
In between traveling Europe and hiking the Appalachian Trail, my consulting firm offered me a part time gig recruiting folks. In that extremely short week I learned two valuable bits of information: active recruiting is not my thing, and the meaning of the purple squirrel.
According to Wikipedia:
“Purple squirrel” is a term used by employment recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, set of experience, and range of qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s requirements. The implication is that over-specification of the requirements makes a perfect candidate as hard to find as a purple squirrel.
Right now you’re probably thinking, so, that means pretty much impossible, right? Because purple squirrels don’t exist. Wait. Do purple squirrels exist? I’m glad you asked. Wikipedia has something to say about actual purple squirrels as well.
In 1997 a purple squirrel was spotted in Minnesota, then again on May 4, 2016. I mean, that actually isn’t hard to believe, not in the home of the Vikings, Prince and Purple Rain. In fact, one theory suggests the 2016 purple squirrel was dyed by fans of Prince, who died a few weeks earlier.
In 2008, Pete the purple squirrel was seen bopping about Meoncross School in Stubbington, Hampshire in the U.K. Some people tried to explain away his magical fur as a result of his stomping grounds, a building with old photocopiers; Pete just had a thing for toner cartridges. But the real believers, the ones who saw Pete with their own eyes, knew this was straight-up malarkey.
In 2012, a purple squirrel was captured in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, after which he became the hottest thing on the internet (I must have missed this phenomenon), quickly establishing his own social media accounts. He was released two days later. Again, people attempted to logically explain the magic purple fur with local hydraulic fracking and the ‘ole chewing on pens theory.
Later that same year in Pennsylvania, a hunter captured and released a purple squirrel while on a deer hunt. Photographs of the squirrel led to more theories as to the reason for the exotic coloration.
So, to answer your question, while there are no such things as purple squirrels, technically…there are. (Unicorns, there’s hope for you yet.)
Back to recruiting. In theory, this coveted “purple squirrel” would handle the large variety of responsibilities of a job description with basically no training, allowing businesses to function with fewer employees, though it is commonly asserted that the effort seeking them is often wasted. Some people say being more open to candidates who don’t have all the skills, or perhaps retraining existing employees, are two sensible alternatives to this fruitless search. Because damn, those purple squirrels are hard to come by.
I can vouch for that. I’ve been looking for my own personal purple squirrel for years. And they weren’t wrong, it’s been a long and grueling search. I too, often felt effort seeking my purple squirrel was wasted. I even tried being more open to candidates who didn’t have all the “skills and requirements,” though I found retraining other squirrels to take on the role of the purple squirrel was just as futile. I tried brown squirrels, black squirrels, gray squirrels, red squirrels, even a few of those crazy albino ones. While several of these squirrels were most definitely sensible alternatives, in the end I wasn’t willing to settle. I held out hope for my purple squirrel, even though I knew he was pretty unlikely to exist, or if he did, it was pretty unlikely I would find him.
That’s the thing about purple squirrels. You know exactly what they look like (purple + squirrel), so when you see one, you pretty much know when you’ve found it. There’s no confusing it for a brown squirrel or a red squirrel, for it is so uniquely purple and without a doubt, a squirrel. And a few weeks ago, I opened my door, and there it was, my purple squirrel. I didn’t even have to capture him, he just walked right in, and he’s been hanging around ever since.
Like others who’ve spotted a purple squirrel, I’ve spent the past month trying to explain away his fur, reason with logic over his existence, but the closer I look, the more vibrantly purple the fur becomes. And the craziest thing, he probably just looks like a regular ‘ole squirrel to other people, human even. But I assure you, he’s definitely a purple squirrel.
Imagine that, they really do exist.
I’ve been seated next to some interesting folks over countless miles across the skies, but my absolute favorite to date was next to a cargo pilot from California, let’s call him Bob. I took one look at him and just knew he was a talker. Before the plane even departed, we immediately bonded over our love of shitty red airline wine and made a pact with the flight attendant to keep the good stuff flowing.
Bob, a former passenger pilot who switched to cargo when he quickly realized boxes don’t complain, felt more like an old friend than a stranger I met ten minutes ago (shitty airplane wine has magical powers). I heard all about his lovely wife and two children, the oldest with autism, their family vacations, the non-profit arts and crafts shop he and his wife hold in their garage for autistic children. I learned about his love of surfing and how he takes as many friends as he can fit into his private plane and lands on remote islands, chasing the big waves. How they load up dune buggies and tear across Death Valley, spending nights camped out in the desert. I probably saw over 100 family photos on his iPad as he hopped from adventure to adventure, revealing a life made of dreams.
At some point the conversation turned to the Appalachian Trail of my past and the Pacific Crest Trail of my future. Bob heard a little about my journey, asked a few questions, and excitedly concluded:
“Oh, so you’re a prepper!”
“I’m a-what now?”
And that’s when I met my first real life Prepper. Bob has a few RVs hidden all over the country, stockpiled with the ten essentials, some questionable essentials and some definite nonessentials. He’s also a part of several groups located all over the country. So for example, if he finds himself in New York if/when whatever he is preparing for actually occurs, he’s got a New York group to take him in until he can make it to home base. What is he prepping for exactly? Doomsday? A government overthrow? Aliens? I didn’t ask, I didn’t care, I was just thrilled at the unexpected turn our conversation had taken. Fascinated and a bit terrified my eyes would give my inner thoughts away, I immediately asked if I could be a part of his group. He gave me his card.
Don’t worry, I haven’t actually contacted him…yet. But it’s interesting how he connected his life, preparing for the end, for civil unrest, for something bad, with my life on the trail, preparing for the beginning of something great, an adventure by choice, one I make happen.
As a long distance hiker, I prepare myself the best I can, do the proper research, get the proper gear, but you simply can’t prepare yourself for everything that crosses your path walking over 2,650 miles through every single (save one) ecosystem North America has to offer. Shoot, you can’t even prepare yourself for the things that happen before you take your first step on the trail.
I mean, just a few weeks ago, my better hiking half Emily and I were giddy over the approach of Day 1 just over the horizon, but now due to unforeseen health concerns, I may or may not be walking toward Canada alone. How do you prepare yourself for losing your adventure buddy, cribbage rival, personal motivator, logical voice of reason, wine-guzzling, Bachelor-watching, partner-in-crime? You can’t. You just sort of have to accept reality and rearrange expectations.
Was I prepared for a solo hike? No. Can I do a solo hike? Yes. Reality accepted, expectations rearranged.
Obviously it’s not that simple, and I am still accepting and rearranging, but that’s sort of what thru-hiking is all about. Encountering challenge upon challenge and figuring out how to successfully move on, move forward, reach your goal (but not the end, I’ve learned there is no end in thru-hiking, just a lot of new beginnings), even if you can’t do it the way you imagined.
I expect to do a lot more accepting and rearranging on this hike. The Sierras currently have 164% average snowpack or something insane like that. I’ve read several articles that mention hiking the PCT this year will be closer to mountaineering than hiking. I picture deep snow on the mountain passes, rushing rivers I will have to ford as all that snow melts, the cold, the wet, the endless postholing, slipping, cautious stepping, questioning my sanity, ability, and strength. I may be forced to turn around, walk miles upstream to find a safe place to cross, spend hours covering one mile. I may get injured, run out of food or water, lose the trail, lose my footing, lose my mind.
And I quite literally cannot wait.
Am I fully prepared for everything that can happen out there? Nah, I can’t predict the future. Who knows how these next five months will play out. But I believe with an open mind, some acceptance and rearranging, everything will work out just fine. Also, we’ll define “fine” at a later date.
On another note, I do now have a rooftop tent on my truck and I am road-tripping to Campo with a man who lives in a converted Sprinter Van. I may be more of a prepper than I thought.
**Originally posted on thetrek.co***
Back when I played with Barbies, the accessory I wanted most for my main gal was that sweet red Barbie Ferrari convertible. Why? So she wasn’t stuck in my room and could explore other places (duh).
I get claustrophobic on tiny islands. On a boat to Santorini, I stifled my panic attack, pretended I was an island girl because I had willingly signed up for this adventure with my friend Alex. It’s not that I hate beautiful, tropical locations. I hate the fact that if I need to escape, I depend on someone else to get me out of there. We rented a car on Naxos and drove around the entire island in like an hour. I took an ATV from one end of Santorini to the other in about as much time. When I reached the end, I remember my throat tightening, thinking, nononononono, where is the rest, there must be more. I need space to roam on my own.
Some twenty-five years ago, my very brave parents packed three of us kids into the back of their car and drove us out to explore the glory of the West, not once but twice. On both trips I kept a very detailed journal of all the amazing things I saw, all the food I ate (BLT, every meal), all the random adventures we had outside of the car. You can feel the magic in the story I created in my little head, excitement pops from the pages penned long ago. Turns out, two decades later, the road trip still hasn’t lost its sparkle for me.
While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I gained a new appreciation for the automobile. Wheels became our lifeline, we counted on the kindness of strangers to whisk our tired bodies away to civilization. People with these coveted machines were magicians, transporting us anywhere from three to 20+ miles up the road to the nearest Dollar General for resupply, taking us to a much needed shower, beer, or post office. And though I consider my Spacehorse and Raleigh family, ain’t nobody picking me up on their bicycle out here. (Though I did take a very questionable ride from a stranger on a motor trike blasting Nickelback outside of Helen, GA.) Cars served a glorious purpose. And pickup trucks became my straight-up heroes. People never seemed to mind throwing us in the back with the rest of the cargo.
There is a certain kind of freedom that comes with a full tank of gas, undefined time and an endless map.
I left Wisconsin last week not knowing where I was really going, but knowing I needed to get out there. As soon as I passed Chicago, a drive I’ve made a million times, I started to feel what I craved, the magic from my childhood journals. I got lost on the back dirt roads of Indiana, cruised through the green Kentucky countryside, bopped along through Tennessee, and onto Arkansas. I zigzagged through the winding roads of the Ouachita National Forest and the Ozarks, crossed the Buffalo River and rolled up and down over Missouri highways on my way to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. I gazed in awe at Wyoming’s rugged landscape, clutched my steering wheel, white knuckles willing my car to stay on the windy, ice-covered roads of North Dakota.
I spend most hours of the day doing exactly what I set out to do: drive. Alone with my thoughts, no podcasts, no music, which is basically against my religion, there’s always music. I’ve avoided cities, even blowing past Nashville and Memphis, two of my favorite places to get lost, because this wasn’t their time. I was with my car, and cars don’t have much of a place in a city. When I do explore cities, I prefer to fly, take the train or bus, use public transportation, my feet, at the very most a bicycle. Driving cars in concrete jungles stresses me out, I feel uncomfortable, clunky, out-of-place. But on these back country roads, I feel right at home, relaxed, free, knowing at any time I can pull over and nap, call it a night or keep driving, literally anything I want. I can go anywhere on the map without being honked at or noticed.
Back on the AT, after hiking more than 1,800 miles to get to Mount Washington, NH, climbing the whole damn rock mine of a mountain and being greeted at the top by a bunch of tourists in flips-flops and perfume, I remember thinking, wait, I COULD HAVE TAKEN A TRAIN UP HERE? Not that it took away from the effort I had just put in, it was just…strange. But now I am the flip-flop tourist, sans perfume and flip-flops. In situations where the options are: you can hike from A to B, OR just take route C in a car and see the same thing, I’ve become a solid C student. Because I didn’t take this road trip to hike. Right now I am chasing a very specific freedom to get to a place, to a feeling I know my feet alone can’t take me.
One night I snuggled up in my 0° sleeping bag in Tennessee and the very next night I slept on top of my 45° bag in Arkansas. I love how I can take three sleeping bags with me and not worry about weight. I love how my FJ serves as my packhorse for everything. I’m fascinated by how the landscape seems to instantly change as my car races over invisible state lines, as if each state is immediately trying to define itself, tell visitors why it’s a special place, what makes it the Show-Me State, the Natural State, Legendary, Big Sky Country, Like No Place on Earth, even if I’m just passing through for a few miles.
I love hiking, I love where it takes my mind and body, how it calms my soul and frees my spirit. But that’s all I’ll be doing in a month, and I love so many things. One very valuable lesson I learned while hiking the Appalachian Trail: taking half a year off to hike a trail is not a vacation. It’s freaking hard work, arguably harder than many jobs. And knowing I am about to voluntarily submit myself to something so incredibly mentally challenging and physically exhausting, I just wanted something to be easy for a little while. I just wanted to drive, see where the endless roads could take me.
Maybe I should be training, like I see everyone else on Instagram and the online hiker community doing, meticulously preparing for the PCT, getting my pack weight down, figuring out calories. Maybe I should be planning food drops and testing out my gear in the backcountry instead of sleeping in my new tent next to my parked car, drinking boxed wine straight from the bag while I write this. Maybe I should be hiking up these mountains every chance I get, instead of powering up “low-maintained, high-clearance vehicles only” roads to get there. But I’m not. Right now, if my car can take me, I am driving there. I am on a road trip, after all.
And these back roads were built for wheels.
*Posted originally on The Trek
“And in the mind of a woman for whom no place is home the thought of an end to all flight is unbearable.”
~The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
My younger sister is pregnant with her first child and like every mama-to-be, has all the first time wonders, concerns, questions, fears. She doesn’t know what she is supposed to feel like, because she’s never felt anything like this before. She doesn’t know what’s normal or abnormal, what feels right or wrong because right now, everything is abnormal and different. She’s never been pregnant before, this is all totally new. Sure, she can read all the books, fill herself with knowledge and facts, prepare the best she can. And other women can tell her all about their own personal experiences, what was normal/abnormal for them, what worked, what didn’t, but even that only can help so much because much like most things in life, everybody’s normal is different. Women all over the world experience pregnancy, but each pregnancy is a unique experience to the woman.
Only if she experiences a second pregnancy, can she have any real clue what to expect from her body. And even those second ones can be filled with loads of surprises.
As I sit here in the little mountain town of Jackson Hole, sipping coffee, waiting for my adventure buddies while staring dreamily at the Tetons, I sort of feel like a woman on her second pregnancy: I’ve been here before. Not Jackson Hole “here,” but “here” in my life journey. I haven’t taken two consecutive days of vacation in the past 16 months of employment, and I’m hearing the bells indicating Round II: Let the Adventure Begin, only this time, I am ready.
When I quit my job on February 28, 2014 to seek adventure and travel the world, I did so riddled with anxiety. I had a panic attack, maybe a few. I was inconsolable, even by people who had embarked on similar journeys successfully before. I clung on to my stability, my steady income, my comforts of home, afraid to let go, terrified of the unknown, yet determined to get there.
To fully experience the leap, you have to take the leap. So I leapt. Or perhaps more accurately, I was walking along, super timidly in the black of night, sort of toeing along something big, looking for solid ground, and the next step I took, I tripped and fell over a cliff. But as I was falling, I found my wings and discovered you don’t need the ground much, not when you can fly.
And then I soared.
And now, another February 28th has come and gone, and I find myself unemployed by choice once again. Only this time, I became so with confidence and excitement. I welcomed the unknown, the roads not yet taken, the uncertainty of my life path for the next ten or so months. I’ve come to an understanding that this is my life now. This is what works for me, this is how I want to do it. A life of adventure sprinkled with reality. Periods of stability and steadiness, a way to fund my daydreams, followed by long spells of adventure, exploring all of the unknown, collecting experiences that take up no space, add no weight to my backpack of life. These memories provide the fuel and motivation to get through those periods of life back on land.
This time, as I leapt into the unknown, I did so with eyes wide-open, grinning ear to ear, enjoying the free fall without reservation. Because I know (though probably not quite what Bette Midler had in mind) those memories, those collected experiences quite literally are, the wind beneath my wings.
Have you ever flown across America? I have. Way too many times, really. Every week I fly from Wisconsin to California, California to Wisconsin. Before that, life on the road regularly transported me to New York, Atlanta, Portland, Los Angeles, and countless cities in between. I’ve logged a frog’s lifetime up in the air.
I enjoyed air travel much more in the days before Wi-Fi became ubiquitous, even way up in the clouds. It forced people to disconnect, be alone with their thoughts, read actual books, chat with complete strangers randomly seated next to them; to entertain themselves without the help of their internet crutch. Facebook, Instagram, work emails, text messages, Snapchat, Tinder…they would have to wait. In an era where uninterrupted think time is on the endangered species list for so many of us, that’s a privilege, not a punishment. Even today, I defy airplane Wi-Fi, choosing instead to enjoy the luxurious chunk of time reading or writing, listening to queued up podcasts, perusing a new travel magazine, devouring the latest issue of The Week, and yes, sometimes falling asleep. But sometimes, I open the tiny plastic oval window shade, look down at the vastness below, and just…think.
How is it possible to be barreling through the air at this tremendous speed? What’s that smell? How do I make it alive every time (so far)? What’s down there? Seriously, who farted? WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE GOING TO OHIO? (I’m a Wisconsinite, I can say that with genuine curiosity and not as an insult.)
I marvel at the clouds, the many different shapes and sizes and textures with which they can layer the sky. I search the horizon, mesmerized by the color palate, how it bleeds together to paint the dawn, dusk, defying time as we travel ahead, or back in time. I gaze down at the mountains, the desert, the tiny squares of farmland, vast valleys, monumental canyons, gaps in the earth, cracks in the land, the endless ocean. You can almost see how Earth took shape over time from up here, the long ridge lines, the open crevices, rugged mountain sides. It’s incredible. America truly is a beautiful sight to behold from 10,000 feet above.
Sometimes (/always) I picture myself down there, a tiny little human, standing on the edge of a giant canyon. I wonder what it would be like to walk across that land, how long it would take me to hike over each kind of terrain that presents itself to me as the plane mechanically swipes right with its powerful engine. I visualize myself trekking along, one foot after another, climbing, scrambling, struggling, no one around for miles, not a soul in sight.
Surveying the landscape below, I question how long I could walk before encountering another living, breathing person. Occasionally the cold metal bird flies over tiny remote communities, their little lights twinkling in the sun, a sort of weird version of hide and seek, Hey! You found us! But just so you know…we weren’t hiding. You just couldn’t see us. Flying a redeye is less…everything. You can’t see the beauty of the land, the cracks, the time, the life, the non-life. Just… darkness. Sometimes I stare blindly into the abyss and count the aeronautical time that flies by between twinkling lights of life.
My favorite state in the whole world of The United States is Montana. Why? Because for as large as it is, practically no one lives there. It is as it was. People haven’t totally ruined it (yet) with their concrete jungles and Uber filled streets. It’s magical, like literal magic, basically Hogwarts. Everyone I’ve met is top-notch pleasant, the food tastes like miracles and the beer flows like a rainbow, the pot of gold being the toilet. Moments within stepping foot into the promised land during winter, it almost immediately begins to snow, powder for everyone! And shoot, everything just sort of works out, pretty much always. Montana is amazing. Montana is the best. But Montana doesn’t represent all of America. I mean, I go there to get away from America.
The problem with our country (which is also sort of the awesomest part), in case you haven’t noticed, WE’RE GINORMOUS. Like, really, really big. With a lot of people. A lot of different people. All doing our own thing in many ways, but in other ways, well…we’re united. The twinkling lights across the inner-lands have no less (or more) heartbeat than the throbbing pulse of the coasts. No ONE area is the heartbeat of America. We all contribute, we all work to keep it alive. Your job is not more or less important than mine, no matter what our titles, our roles, how much we’re paid. We work together, we help each other. I exist because you exist. Some bleed red, some bleed blue, but we all bleed, so the saying goes.
But Red and Blue on a color map of the United States does not represent the number of heartbeats, the number of minds, the number of souls. It simply represents geographical space on a map. If you truly believe your piece of the pie represents the heart of America, I respect that. But a heart can only get so far without a brain, without the major veins and arteries pumping the blood, without the liver and kidneys to detoxify and filter, lungs to breathe and motor skills to keep us moving forward. Our country is like the human body. It functions best running on all cylinders. No one thinks about the kidney until they’re in desperate need of one.
And if you ask me, red and blue weren’t randomly chosen to represent political mindsets in America. Both are primary colors. No other color can exist without them. They are the foundation of all the colors (aside from black and white, yada, yada). These days, we constantly hear about living in bubbles and echo chambers. I often roam the space between chambers, one of those weird conjoined bubbles you blow out of your bubble stick and you’re all like, COOL! Sometimes I feel I am wandering the hallways of the country, cupping my ear to every door, listening to the same tired words bounce off like minds, listening as they rapidly snowball down to the black abyss. All I want to do is tear off down the center of the hallway, wildly throwing open door after door, forcing the voices into the unknown, into the undiscovered, like the Pied Piper, leading his rats (not that we’re rats…we’re not rats, right?) I want to barrel through the country with my rooftop tent truck, leaning out the window to pop all the bubbles, big and small, watching as the reds and blues spill out past their flimsy invisible borders to blend together with yellow, the color of the land we all feed on, to make all of the remarkable colors I know exist, the colors I see in my dreams.
Inevitably, the airplane lands, I snap back to reality and prepare myself for the Red or Blue awaiting me on the other end of the jetway, dragging my feet, longing for the colors of my mind.
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”
Or so they say. No matter who is given the credit, that oft misquoted quote always bothered me, and not only because it implies I had no heart when I was 25 (my conservative years) and that I have no brain now (peace, love and unicorns baby), but because it makes no sense. I mean, I get the idea. Young people are more likely to be free-spirited liberals living in hippie vans preaching peace, love and hope for all, that is, until they have a head-on collision with the Real World, start families and discover the need to protect their own, the value of money, bogged down by bills and the pressure to keep up with the Jones’.
But seriously, is that really all life is? This linear experience where you can be this or that, and nothing in between? Are we merely all separate characters in the Wizard of Oz, in constant search of our missing human components along the yellow brick road? Can we never be whole? Is it that impossible to grow into your brain while still keeping in touch with your heart? Do you really have to choose between the two?
When I was younger, let’s say from 18-28, standard intelligence measurements would indicate I did indeed have a brain, but my heart was just learning what it meant to be a heart. It was of smallish proportions and there wasn’t a ton of room for much other than me. It hadn’t quite figured out its purpose yet; I hadn’t lived much, experienced much, and had no idea what my heart was capable of, had no clue just how big it could get. At the appropriate above quoted age to have a heart, I was too busy being my most selfish-self.
In the age range appropriate to think with your heart/be liberal, I used Planned Parenthood services without thinking twice of the fights already fought to make them available to me in my small town. I enjoyed the natural beauty of the National Parks and lands without understanding their constant struggle to keep protected lands protected, or how reliant they are on donations and volunteers to operate. I drank clean water, not wondering where it came from, breathed fresh Wisconsin air, not worrying a bit about the quality (a hint of manure in the breeze will always smell freshest to me). I received an excellent high school, collegiate and graduate education, not caring too deeply about how the whole education system operated, or how lucky I was people in power actually cared about the public school system. And as soon as I started making my own money, I immediately began to waste most of it on me. I didn’t volunteer my time or donate to important causes (or any cause really), unless you consider my wardrobe, food and beverage consumption, the newest electronic gadgets and other needless home decor “important causes.” But at the time, that stuff was important to me. In short, my existence was all about me.
As I aged, my heart grew bigger, not smaller; through people, through travel, through adventure, through life. My experiences introduced different lenses through which to see the world, sort of like how you can swap out a camera lens and get a totally different photo while looking at the exact same landscape. Sometimes you see the fine details, sometimes you see the bigger picture. Sometimes you see a photo from an angle that no matter how hard you try, you can’t reproduce it yourself. Other times you see a photo that shows you things impossible to see with your own two eyes. Not to mention all those quirky filters you can apply. I learned the world through my default lens looked much different from the world through my neighbor’s default lens, no matter how similar of lives we lead. I walked thousands of miles not necessarily walking in, but learning about, someone else’s shoes. I opened my ears, closed my mouth and dropped the attitude, “Well if I can do it, anyone can.” Just because I found a way to do it, doesn’t automatically mean everyone can find a way to do it. That isn’t the way it works, though it makes for a good slogan. “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps! I did!” Even if that were physically possible, it’s assuming all people have boots on their feet to begin with. And they don’t.
If I gave you the board game Sorry! and asked you to play Monopoly, you might run into some challenges. Sure, they’re both board games, both published by Parker Bros/Hasboro, but they use totally different pieces, boards, concepts, and play by different rules. Those fortunate enough might just go out and buy the game of Monopoly and start playing, no big deal. Those creative enough might fashion new pieces, alter the board a little, make their little ragtag game of Monopoly-ish work. Others might be totally fucking confused. If you wanted me to play Monopoly, WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST GIVE ME THE GAME OF MONOPOLY, YOU ASSHAT? Still, some will look at the game of Sorry! and be all like, screw Monopoly, this game rules!!! (It’s true, it does). Then you got those who refuse to play either board game because they think board games are stupid. And people who don’t play board games are the real monsters of this world.
Today is my birthday. I have now lived 36 years of life. I don’t fall into either side of that quote, either end of the linear equation of life; that’s sort of the whole idea behind this entire blog. More often than not, I find myself taking the other fork in the road. I live my life in scribbles. My heart is as big as it’s ever been, neurotransmitters are binding to the receptors in my brain like whoa. I am still learning not to judge everyone’s way of life solely based on my own personal experiences, desires and beliefs. This is an extremely difficult thing to master, and I’ve relapsed more than once. I’ve found the best way to get back on track is to have even more personal experiences with the Great Variety that is Life. And oh, how I value those personal experiences. They’ve shaped me, given me the solid foundation I’ve been waiting to build on for so long. They’ve made me who I am today, and I am proud of that person. My eyes are open, my ears are perked, my heart has expanded beyond the simple outline of an organ and my brain is soaking it up and processing it all. Imagine that. A world in which you can have both a heart and a brain.
So what do you call people over 35 who exercise their brains, want to protect and provide for their own families, value equal rights for all humans regardless of race, religion or gender, believe in protecting our beautiful earth, the institution of education, practice tolerance, acceptance and have a heart with all the feels?
The Future of America.
(and maybe a wee bit optimistic)